Friday, March 04, 2005


John Silva’s version sent to Asian Wall Street Journal

(With all the commemorations on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Philippines, this article reminds us that in Japan, there are still attempts to change history. This piece appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal in August 2003)

World War II, The Japanese Version, at
The Yasukuni Shrine Museum
By John L. Silva

August 15th marks the 58th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific. Over a half century should have brought closure and healing to that painful period. But I was disturbed by a recent visit to the newly refurbished Yasukuni Shrine Museum in Tokyo. The museum reinterprets the war as having been forced on Japan, glosses over the atrocities committed and panders to a lingering Japanese xenophobia.

The museum is on the grounds of the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, across from the Imperial Palace. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has visited the shrine twice to honor the 2.4 million soldiers who died most of them during World War II. Some of the dead include Class A War criminals like General Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister who was hanged by the U.S. Army of Occupation in 1948 for war crimes. Koizumi’s official visit - considered illegal by the Japanese Supreme Court in 1991 citing the separation of religion and politics - is opposed by a majority of the Japanese people and the governments of South Korea and China who consider the gesture an insult to their countries.
Shintoism believes that soldiers who died for their country are to be elevated, through ceremony, and revered as gods. Honor for these gods permeates throughout the 20 large marble galleries in the mid-19th century building, renovated last year with an added multimillion dollar modern wing. The exhibit begins chronologically from the medieval period, threads through the internecine battles between Shoguns and ineffectual Emperors, through the Meiji and westernization period, the Russo and Sino-Japanese wars and the Greater East Asian War, an old militarist propaganda term for World War II. Aside from the portraits and photographs of Shoguns, generals, naval commanders and Kamikazi pilots, the artifacts are mostly uniforms, medals, arms and helmets. Full-scale bronze statues, a Zero fighter plane, a tank, a locomotive, and a one-man submarine are in the larger rooms.

Late 19th and early 20th century Asia is described as “Western Powers Encroach(ing) on Asia” with a regional map showing the various European and American flags over their respective colonies. This perspective allows the first of historical interpretations that modern Meiji-era Japan was the guiding light for Asian colonies to break from Western Imperialism. The 1904 Russo-Japanese War is heralded as having inspired other Asians to fight for their independence citing China as an example, having overthrown the Qing Dynasty. Disturbingly, it states baldly that their victory allowed them to “annex Korea resolving concerns about national security.”

The occupation of Manchuria was not to install a puppet president but to transform a backward warlord ridden state to that with modern cities and a vast infrastructure. The Nanking massacre of 1937? There is no citation to be found. But at the museum bookstore, copies of “The Alleged Nanking Massacre, Japan’s Rebuttal to China’s Forged Claims” was prominently on sale.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the text reads, needed a war to get the United States out of a lingering depression. Roosevelt conceived “Plan Victory,” an embargo of goods and oil to Japan causing “…resource-poor Japan into war.” Faced with a shortage, Japan reluctantly eyed the Philippines and points south rich in iron, copper, copra and sugar. There was no other option.

One large exhibition wall has a gigantic blow-up photo of the burning American fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 following the Japanese surprise attack overlaid with hanging models of torpedo planes, bombers and the photos of the fighter pilots who lost their lives. There is an air of triumph in this visual display, in stark contrast to the foot dragging, victimized Japan just a display case away.

The occupation of Manila soon after was “unopposed,” the surrender of Bataan cited, but the three harrowing years of Japanese occupation is selectively forgotten. The disastrous defeat in the decisive naval battle at Leyte Gulf in October 1944 was laid on an “overly optimistic” Imperial General Headquarters and “successive waves of army reenforcements unable to turn the tide of the battle.” As a tribute, a naval officer’s dark blue uniform is displayed, its owner was on the Battleship Musashi, one of the Navy’s largest ships which sank in the battle at Leyte.

The final exhibit is a paean to the positive contribution of Japanese aggression. In a bizarre twist of historical rendering, a map covering Asia, South Asia and Africa links their respective anti-colonial struggles to Japanese domination. “Once the desire for independence had been kindled under Japanese occupation, it did not die, even though Japan was ultimately defeated. After the war ended, Asian nations fought for their independence and won it.”

Far from it. All the Asian nations under Japanese occupation, including the Philippines, had very active guerrilla movements that fought, either in tandem or separately, both the Japanese Army and the colonial forces to gain their independence.

As a final mockery to Philippine history, there are photographs of ex-Katipunero Artemio Ricarte, Sakdalista Benigno Ramos, President Emilio Aguinaldo and President Jose P. Laurel. Each brief decription of their anti-colonial work ended with this identical sentence: “During the war, he cooperated with the Japanese Military.” President Laurel is described inaccurately or by design as the first President of the Philippine commonwealth, robbing President Manuel L. Quezon of that distinction.

Military museums throughout the world glorify and justify their country’s martial past. Their accounts usually lack in objectivity and the depredation, the civilian misery are of scant interest. The Yasukuni Shrine Museum is disquieting because there exists an overlay of Shintoism deifying all military personnel who died for Japan. Including war criminals, butchers, rapists, and the soldiers who flung babies in the air, piercing them with bayonets upon their fall. As gods, they are beyond reproach and the rendering of justice. Now routinely worshipped by Prime Ministers, Japan’s war crimes to the peoples of Asia are erased and even justified. With growing talk from Japan’s right wing faction to revise its constitutional mandate of renouncing war and, instead, rearming - this time with nuclear weapons – the Yasukuni Shrine’s deletion of past criminal culpabilities makes the proposed transition easier.

Prime Minister Koizumi is expected to visit the Yasukuni Shrine again this year and, as in past visits, China and South Korea have strongly condemned these actions. China this year has added checkbook diplomacy by stalling on an expected multi-billion dollar Japanese bullet train project citing the Prime Minister’s offensive shrine visits. The Philippines, sadly muted in its reaction to the whole affair, should follow China and Korea in strenuously objecting to the visits as well as to the Yasukuni Museum’s interpretation of events and its historical deletions. The ancestral spirits of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who died in World War II in defense of their homeland or as innocent victims to Japanese ravages, need no deification. Just a decent and truthful remembrance.

On my way out of the museum, there was an alcove with a guest book inviting people to sign and record their feelings. I asked my fellow museologist, Mr. Kimizuka Yoshihiko of Tokyo Gakugei University to translate the last entry that day, August 3rd. He was aghast and rendered speechless for a few seconds. It read “Kill all Koreans and Asians.” Despite the Shinto ceremony to transform the ancestors as divine, the Yasukuni Shrine cannot seem to extinguish the implacable hate remaining in some of these gods.

John L. Silva is the Senior Consultant to the National Museum of the Philippines

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Statue of Kamikaze Fighter, entrance of the Yasukuni Shrine Museum, Tokyo

Originally uploaded by John Silva.

Photo by John L. Silva

John Silva, Kyoto Aug. 2003

John Silva, Kyoto Aug. 2003
John Silva, Kyoto Aug. 2003,
originally uploaded by John Silva.


(Published in Philippine Starweek Magazine, February 13, 2005)

Book review: Ghost Soldiers by Hampton White

John L. Silva

The yearly commemoration of the end of Japanese occupation in the Philippines occurs in the month of February. The weather is temperate, there is a constant cool breeze and the light is still not as harsh. It is a pleasant time to visit the cemetery and memorial sites to lay flowers and offer a prayer to loved ones and fellow citizens who died this month sixty years ago. For the over 100,000 innocent civilians who perished in Manila in February, their deaths were tragic and unnecessary. If it wasn’t from the hands of a barbaric Japanese soldier it would be from the excessive mortar fire of American “liberation” forces.

The remembering this year has been more acute with the visit of Mr. Hampton Sides, author of the best-selling book, Ghost Soldiers. It is a about the rescue of 500 American prisoners in a Cabanatuan prison camp by a selected team of 121 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s Sixth Ranger Batallion.

The book appearing in hardcover in 2002, has been a national bestseller in the United States and received several literary prizes for the author, a native of Memphis, Tennessee. Many distinguished American writers from the south like William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote excel at good storytelling. Hampton Sides has now joined the ranks by giving a gripping historical rendering of the most successful American rescue operations on Philippine soil.

Actually, Hampton Sides would amend that statement. In his talk at the United States Embassy honoring him, and in speeches to a variety of audiences, Mr. Sides would repeatedly emphasize the invaluable role played by the Filipino guerrillas in helping and supporting the rescue operations. He never fails to mention the names Captain Juan Pajota and Captain Eduardo Joson two veteran guerrilla fighters who, with their hundred men provided reconnaissance, tactical information, and their lives fighting the Japanese forces while the raid on the prison camp occurred.

This is refreshing insight for many Filipinos weaned on past biographies, history books and movies of World War II Philippines written by Americans who, by omission, left out a wide swath of Filipinos that played fairly significant roles in that period. A lot of the forgetfulness came with the thinking in those days. The historical movers were the Americans, the Filipinos and the Philippines merely the backdrop.

Hampton Sides is one of a growing number of enlightened American historical writers who’ve discarded long-standing notions about America’s incursion into the Philippines, replacing them with sober objectivity. In Ghost Soldiers he introduces the Philippines to readers as the colony won after “…a vicious campaign against the Philippine people which came to be known, inappropriately, as the Philippine Insurrection, as though the local citizenry were displaying an outrageous insubordination for seeking a voice in the future of their own archipelago.” Just twenty years ago, this kind of statement in the U.S. State Department would have been branded pure Communist piffle.

Not only does Sides acknowledge the role of the Filipino guerrillas, he gives them a flesh-and-blood rendering. Captain Pajota he describes as having a …”round, high-cheekboned face and a penetrating stare. His voice was grave, his English clipped and richly accented but quite fluent. A fellow American guerrilla leader who knew Pantoja said “He was a very unflamboyant guy with a natural bent for leadership. He was resourceful, organized, and extremely imaginative. He was from Nueva Ecija, and knew it like a book.” Just the phrase “Knew it like a book” speaks volumes of an important guerrilla attribute.

Hampton Sides spent only a month in this country five years ago to write this book. It’s simply amazing considering the minutest details he adds in describing the Philippine countryside. Much of the story is about the travel on trucks, on foot, and eventually on all creeping fours by the 6th Ranger led by Lt. Colonel Henry A. Mucci with 120 men to reach the prison camp site in Pangatian, four miles from Cabanatuan City.

Cogon grass, Sides writes was good for cover for the Rangers but “bore hundreds of silky hairs that made the Rangers” skin itch. There was “dried carabao dung” they had to crawl over on the “cracked earth” of rice fields. There were …”deeper thickets with miscellaneous noise – buggy noises, reptilian noises.” Oftentimes Sides would switch to poetry. If the trudging soldiers tired of the vegetation and wanted to look anywhere, “…the Rangers had to look up at the powdering of stars and the fat moon dancing in and out of stray cumulus clouds.”

The setting Sides describes is so intense that one can hear the pulsating sounds of cicadas while reading his book. His acknowledgement section numbering eight pages answers the vividness in his writing. In addition to having read a significant body of World War II material, he interviewed most of the Ranger soldiers and former American prisoners still alive. If they had passed away he interviewed their relatives and children. He was given access to private letters and diaries. Sides did very comprehensive research and the result is evident in every sentence packed with detail, nuance and emotion.

His prison camp scenes are harrowing. The healthiest of the three thousand original prisoners had been sent to Japan and the very sick and injured remained in the camp with no medicine. Starvation and diseases exacerbated the men’s condition. It was really not a prison but an ill-equipped hospital for the dying. As the news spread that, after three long years, the American forces had landed, the Japanese guards exacted greater cruelty. When the first of the Rangers eventually reached their prison barracks, and ordered them to leave, the prisoners initially didn’t budge, incredulous that they would ever meet friendly faces again.

It was only a matter of time given the book’s immense popularity that a Hollywood movie would follow. It has, and recently with Hampton Sides still present, there was a special movie screening at Greenbelt Cinema in Makati of The Great Raid, a Miramax adaptation of Sides’ historical material with the addition of a requisite fictional love story, lots of ear-splitting exploding trucks and tanks, orchestral dirge, and for some comic relief, good old Yankee guffaws between two Ranger soldiers at the end of the movie.

There was considerable applause during the ending credits for local movie star Cesar Montano who plays Captain Juan Pajota. The applause was certainly to acknowledge his great acting but moreover, the applause was to the producers of the film who gave ample scenes and character development to the guerrilla fighters and the Manila underground movement as integral to the overall story, fiction or otherwise. We’ve come a long way from movies like Back to Bataan (1945) with Anthony Quinn as the guerrilla captain named - get this -Andres Bonifacio. Montano spoke better English in this movie; Quinn as Bonifacio spoke in grunts with an accent that was part Tex-Mex and part Italian Mafia.

The very evident role of the Filipino guerrillas in this Hollywood movie and in Ghost Soldiers brings up the pervasive unsettled question that the United States Government has not addressed: The compensation of Filipino guerrillas who fought with American troops on the promise that they would be entitled to all the benefits due them as veterans.

Shamefully, right after the war, the U.S.Government enacted the Rescission Act (public law 79-301 now U.S. code sec. 101, title 38) rescinding any benefits and compensation to Filipino war veterans.

When I asked Mr. Sides his thoughts on Filipino veteran compensation, he was unequivocal. He said that every Ranger veteran he interviewed for the book attested to the role the Filipino guerrillas played in the successful Cabanatuan rescue operation. “If the US Government can spend $250 billion dollars in Iraq,” Sides said, “I don’t see why it cannot settle our old accounts with the Filipino veterans. I am very sympathetic to this issue even though I know there are difficulties in proving guerrilla identification and the like. But when you have to draw the line, you have to side with the Filipino veterans and sadly, this may cease to be an issue with fewer veterans left.”

The Philippine Government is not exempt from criticism over the veterans issue. The Filipino guerrillas fought not just for the United States but they fought for their country. This country. The compensation they have received from this government is niggardly and a national shame. Because in the final analysis, we can pounce all we want on the United States for ingratitude. But these veterans are here in this country, destitute, getting older and unrecognized. After awhile, whining at the American Government is just a mask for the national failure to care for our own.

The book, the movie, Mr. Sides’ visit to the Philippines and the smattering of memorials throughout the country to remember our dead accentuates the no-win situation of wars. The victorious American forces were to our liking and welcomed as saviors but at a tremendous loss of loved ones and the wanton destruction of our cities. In the case of our veterans, the United States and the Philippine Government would like to delude themselves to thinking that valor and heroism should be enough psychic compensation for them. But they need to live decently in their senior years and health problems to look after. Our decimating veteran heroes today get nothing of both.

A poignant part of Hampton Sides’ book is seeing the photographs of the Ranger veterans fifty plus years later. They sport ruddy faces and the expected wrinkles but the streaks of courage still appear on their faces. They gambled their youth for a war still considered today, “the good fight,” and lived to tell Hampton Sides. There was one Cabanatuan prisoner Mr. Sides did not interview for he died during the war. His name was Lt. Henry Lee, a soldier and a poet. This poem, written while in Cabanatuan prison is a lament for his G.I. buddies who came to our country to fight and die here. It is a lament we need to softly remember too as we lay flowers on graveyards in this pleasant yet sad month of February.

Westward we came across the smiling waves,
West to the outpost of our country’s might
“Romantic land of brilliant tropic light”
Our land of broken memories and graves

Eastward we go and home, so few
Wrapped in their beds of clay our comrades sleep
The memories of this land are branded deep
And lost is the youth we knew.